Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Lebanon to be Hot in the Fall

This is a new article just published on Huffington Post that I wrote, reflecting on the current situation in Lebanon and the blowing winds coming in the fall. Please go to the site (by clicking here) to check it out and give your comments.


The Fall in Lebanon to be Hotter Than the Summer

BEIRUT -- When the temperature in Dubai drops below 40 C or 110 F there is cause for excitement, because you will be able to walk outside. Of course, if you wear glasses, they may quickly fog up with condensation leaving you blind as a bat. Thus, it is the Gulf pastime to fly away for a getaway to Beirut, Lebanon. It is, however, somewhat of a quixotic choice. Lebanon? Home of Hezbollah? Yet amidst the buildings adorned with marks from bygone bullets and bombs, are the beaches and beating nightlife of Beirut. In fact, Skybar, the city's premier nightspot is rated as one of the world's top clubs.

Overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, wind in your hair, the warmth of sporadic bursts of fire in your face, you are surrounded by countless wonders of the world who spend hours preparing themselves just to have you glance at them so they can look away. Or you could be at Music Hall, where a sophisticated crowd takes in performance after performance of international musical talent, from Italian opera to Cuban jazz to Jerusalem folk songs -- all in one night. And if that doesn't suit you, perhaps you'd want to go to the Riviera beach club and see how dressing up is really dressing down. Yes, summer in Beirut is quite hot. Nevertheless the fall promises to be even hotter, albeit in an altogether different way.

Lebanon has experienced a brief respite starting in May 2008, from violence, strife, and political stalemate. It has not been perfect, but the peace has provided a modicum of long-awaited stability. Come autumn that could all change. The rising tensions between Iran and the US, as well as the upcoming indictments to be presented by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigating the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, could jolt the country back to instability.

The Doha Agreement on May 21, 2008, allowed for the creation of a unity government (one in which Hezbollah was effectively given a veto in cabinet) and the election of President Michel Suleiman. In fact, it was the first time in 35 years that Lebanon had a legitimate head of state at a time of peace; there was no Syrian or Israeli occupation (essentially), or civil war, or foreign-installed President (i.e. Emile Lahoud). The last two years, also allowed Lebanon to somewhat heal from the Israeli onslaught in July 2006, which devastated the South and suburbs of Beirut particularly, and left Lebanon divided. A generally free election in 2009, gave way to a surprising victory for the March 14 coalition spearheaded by Saad Hariri's (son of Rafiq) Future Party, over the Hezbollah-led opposition coalition. What was even more surprising was that both sides accepted the results and formed a unity government (after some Saudi-Syrian conversations of course). Since then, for the first time in their histories, Lebanon and Syria established diplomatic relations (i.e. embassies) with each other.

Yet, the more things change, unfortunately, the more they stay the same. Yes, the 'party' is still ongoing and on the surface Lebanon is changing. For example, I was at a wedding of epic proportions in the Bekaa Valley (a stronghold of Hezbollah) on Saturday, which brought together a Druze bride and a Shiite-Sunni groom. Young people from whatever affiliation or disposition or sect blended together to celebrate into the night. Musicians from France, a singer from New York, and friends from around the world showcased the cosmopolitan side of Lebanon. However, just two days earlier, Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary-General of Hezbollah, had made a stirring speech to the masses in Dahiya and beyond, where he made a claim that has been reverberating in the media for some weeks: several members of Hezbollah will be implicated by the Special Tribunal for Rafiq Hariri's death. What gave people pause, was that he made a pointed reference to current Prime Minister Saad Hariri, revealing personal conversations between the two, where Nasrallah alleged Hariri (the son) told him what the results of the Tribunal would be in advance.

The tinderbox that is Lebanon can explode at any moment. There hasn't been true reconciliation between Sunnis (predominantly supportive of Saad Hariri) and Shiites (predominantly supportive of Hezbollah) since the events of May 7, 2008 when Hezbollah stormed Sunni areas of Beirut in response to the government's decision to crackdown on its telecommunication network. All that is needed is a spark or someone to strike a match, for the country to be engulfed once again in the flames of violence and instability. Since 2005, the Tribunal has been investigating Hariri's death (the father). Now, there is an expectation that the first indictments will be issued as early as September; moreover, in the crosshairs will likely be Hezbollah. Nasrallah has marked a line in the sand saying that no members of his group will be turned over to anyone.

On the other side of the region, the tensions continue to rise between Iran and the U.S.; this will bring further scrutiny on the relationship between Iran and Hezbollah. Due in the fall are reports for UNSC Resolutions 1559 and 1701, which specifically focus on the continuing arms smuggling by Hezbollah (among several other issues). The UNSC may ask UNIFIL forces in the South to take a more direct role in seizing weapons, or investigating arm caches. Already this year, we have seen small skirmishes between UNIFIL and 'residents' of the South. This is likely to get worse in the fall. There is always as well the persistent threat of an irrational escalation by either Hezbollah or Israel with one another, to distract from domestic concerns; thus the situation remains tense on the border.

Does that mean that Lebanon is on a direct path for more internecine conflict? There are signs that the different actors will not want to lead Lebanon to crisis. Hezbollah does not have the same political capital it once did, and it lost considerable popular legitimacy last May when it used its weapons internally. Saad Hariri, himself, has chosen a path of detente, internally and with Syria, which he appears to be committed to despite the circumstances. Finally, Israel is at a weak point internationally, and igniting another conflict with Lebanon would leave it even more isolated.

However, despite the above, the situation is assuredly going to heat up in the coming months. Avoiding conflict, violence and further instability is a priority not just for Lebanon but for the interest of global security. National leaders, regional players and the international community will have to take care not to fan the flames. Unfortunately, as evidenced by Lebanese history, these three groups have often done precisely the opposite.

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